Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

The Protean Nature of Irish Tale: The Generic Analysis of Maria Edgeworth's Ennui

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

The Protean Nature of Irish Tale: The Generic Analysis of Maria Edgeworth's Ennui

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The aim of the article is to demonstrate the derivative nature of Irish tale, a short-lived genre which thrived in the Romantic period. The analysis is based on Maria Edgeworth Ennui (1809), which skillfully and self-consciously combines various kinds of factual discourse (e.g. memoirs, autobiographies, travelogues) with diverse fictional modes (romance, melodrama) with a view to expose the shallowness of English stereotypes about Ireland as well as to call for the modernization of Ireland through the professionalisation of its gentry.

Maria Edgeworth's place in literary history is described in various ways. She is an inheritor of Fanny Burney's tradition of the novel of manners, in which, however, as it is widely agreed, she was surpassed by Jane Austen, as well as the author of various moral tales addressed both to her children and adult readers. However, most of all Edgeworth is remembered as a creator of the national tale, (1) which was later transformed into a historical novel (2) (Ferris 1991: 105). The Irish tale, however, has "only recently begun to move into critical purview" (Ferris 1996: 288) and it appears that it has not developed its own distinct generic characteristics. Ferris describes it as "a worldly and impure genre that sets out to do something with words ... [which] makes central to its whole project the often obscured, performative notion of representation" in the sense of "the presentation of something to someone as to create a certain effect" (Ferris 1996: 288-289). The Irish tale is a medley of diverse conventions, borrowed from historiographic and romance discourse, as well as from moral parables with a view to advance a thesis. Edgeworth thus produces fables made realistic by the use of historiographic tropes, to argue the necessity of "the professionalization of the gentry, the remaking of a social class to fit it for social leadership of the other classes in a single, 'national' interest" (Kelly 1989: 74). The conflation of the factual and fictional conventions frequently, however, results in the strong strain of self-consciousness in the novel, since the narrator not only evinces keen awareness of the devices he employs but also subjects the conventions he exploits to a close scrutiny to probe their usefulness to achieve the desired effect on the readers.

Nowhere is the composite nature of the Irish tale more conspicuous than in Ennui, a tale written in 1804 and published in 1809. The narrative assumes the form of memoirs, a convention firmly rooted in the tradition of eighteenth-century autobiographic fiction, popularised by Daniel Defoe. The professed purpose of the story is also in keeping with Defoe's fictional characters' protestations of their willingness to promote virtue. Yet, if Moll Flanders (1722) or Roxana (1734) pleaded didacticism to justify the recital of various sins, which proved to be the chief attraction of their tale, in the story narrated by Lord Glenthorn, the protagonist of Ennui, the assertions of the instructive value of his life have a much more genuine ring and thus his sins are devoid of the power of allurement, which Defoe's narratives actually have. His is a story demonstrating how destructive money, hereditary title and the lack of motivation can be, since it leads to the titular ennui, or boredom. It is only after he goes to Ireland, learns the secret of his lowly birth, and renounces the title, that Lord Glenthorn is forced to some exertion that brings him the enjoyment of life. Love towards a lady provides him with a motivation to persevere in hard labour and in the end his efforts are rewarded with success. He wins the hand of his beloved and a fortune that they need. The moral of the tale is glaring and it is imposed on the readers by means of hackneyed romance tropes. Glenthorn, however, is a self-reflexive narrator, and knows they are necessary to make his moralising digestible to the readers whose tastes have been spoilt by fictions. …

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